Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Different Kind of Classic Cooking: A Bun in the Oven

I wasn't sure when--or if--to share this here because this blog is about cooking from old cookbooks not my personal story. Still, I decided I owed my readers an explanation of why I have not always been diligent about keeping up with posting here.

The picture above was made using the oldest recipe in the book.

And, yes, I never imagined I would be barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen, but that is precisely what I am most days. I am spending the summer working part-time from home, studying for comprehensive exams, and growing a baby.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Everthing Old is New Again

Since moving into a small condo I have discovered the thing I miss the most about our old house: the garden. In it we had strawberries, rhubarb, horseradish, cucumbers, zucchini, many varieties of sweet and hot peppers and tomatoes, eggplant, lots of different herbs, and whatever else caught our attention at the nursery. Neighbors were encouraged to pick strawberries and vegetables from our garden when we realized we couldn't eat all that we planted. Some food was composted, but most went directly onto our plates or those of our co-workers and neighbors.

We didn't grow the variety of things we could find in the supermarket or even the variety of vegetables we get in our share at the CSA, like beets, greens, asparagus, and potatoes. We sometimes tired of the produce from our garden, the glut of zucchini, the strawberries that we sometimes let rot until only the birds would eat them. But mostly we enjoyed it, building menus around whatever was in season. I never ate raw tomatoes until my husband planted tomato plants in the backyard of the first apartment we ever rented together. That summer not only did I start eating tomatoes, we had tomato sandwiches many nights in a row for weeks on end and never got tired of them.

In this day of war and rising food (and everything else) costs, I have been reading some about victory gardens. During World War II, people were encouraged to grow their own gardens and not waste food. Today, it seems the messages we receive from society, both government and private industry, is that we need to support businesses and the economy more, not less, and the idea of victory gardening is anathema to that. And food waste is rampant in homes, colleges, and restaurants. But I don't know that the spirit of victory gardening was ever new or has ever disappeared: I see it in the "good life" of the Nearing's, and the communes of the hippies, and in the simple living movement.

Even if you can't grow vegetables because you have a shady balcony, like us, or just don't have time or energy to grow your own garden I think we can still live the spirit of the victory garden. Eat locally. Eat seasonally. Don't waste food.

There are many resources out there to get us started on all of this, and I think this video is an inspiring place to start (and it mentions victory gardens!). Also check out the 100 Mile Diet, Local Harvest, and the Wasted Food blog.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Worth the Wait: Easy Rhubarb Pie with Flaky Crust

Yes, it has been about two months since I posted anything and, wow, time flies. There are a few reasons for this but I don't know that it really matters. What is more important is that I am back to cooking, back to searching old cookbooks for recipes cooked by our grandmothers and great-grandmothers (let's face it, it probably wasn't our grandfathers doing the cooking).

We start with an ingredient that is in season right now in many parts of the country. But this rhubarb isn't just any rhubarb it is fresh from my aunt's backyard, picked while we were visiting family in Wisconsin. Yeah, folks, Wisconsin isn't just brats and cheese though we had our fill of those, too. (I digress: we attended the World's Largest Brat Fest in Madison and to my delight they had Boca Brats!). My husband spotted it from across the yard and said, over his shoulder as he started running towards it, "Is that rhubarb?" Sure enough, there was a giant ripe for the pickin' rhubarb plant in the corner of the yard. He hacked off a number of stalks, wrapped it in foil, and placed it in a cooler for the 16 hour drive back home. He planned to make his not quite famous rhubarb bread, but I got to it first.

If you aren't familiar with rhubarb, there is something you really ought to know about it: this stuff is tart. When I mention cooking rhubarb to people it is almost inevitably followed by, "Yeah, you have to mix it with strawberries and lots of sugar." It seems our ancestors weren't so quick to get rid of the tartness as most recipes I found did not mix rhubarb with any sweet fruit, though they do call for sugar. I figured, in this day of super sour candy we can surely handle a little tart fresh rhubarb, right?

This pie is actually made from two different recipes, one for the crust from the Rumford Complete Cookbook and one for the filling from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. The crust is flaky and tasty, though in my impatience I didn't roll it thin enough. The filling is tart and sturdy, with only four ingredients. This pie comes together really quickly and the results are pretty darn good. My husband thought is was good, too, but shook his head and said, "It's no Mennonite pie." He was right, of course, but I think he wasn't thinking of just the pie but of our day spent lollygagging around the Dane County Farmers Market, sitting on the grass eating bread, cheese curds, and rhubarb pie. It really doesn't get better than that.

Rhubarb Pie
The crust recipe is from the Rumford Complete Cookbook, Revised, 1940, and the filling is from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1948. The crust calls for "1 1/3 cups lard, or other shortening." Instead of lard, I used 1 cup of Spectrum organic trans fat free shortening and 1/3 cup butter. Also, because my husband loved the Mennonite pie with the crumbled topping so much, and because I was too lazy to roll out more dough to make a lattice pattern on top, I mixed a little bit of the pastry crust with a little bit of sugar and crumbled it over the top. The filling recipes notes "many prefer to scald rhubarb before using," so I scalded about half of it and the rest I left raw. This made the filling a little less tart, and also seemed to be a nice mix of very soft, gel-like pieces of rhubarb and firmer pieces.

Flaky Pastry
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/3 cups shortening, see note above
ice-cold water

Sift the flour and salt together into a bowl. Blend the shortening into the flour with a pastry cutter or two knives until well mixed (shortening will be pea size or smaller). Add water, about a tablespoon at a time, to form a dough, cutting the pastry the whole time.

Roll dough onto a floured board. Roll only lengthwise. Fold dough evenly into three layers (lengthwise, like a trifolded piece of paper). Turn it half around and repeat. Do this at least three times to make the pastry flaky. If possible, chill the pastry before baking.

Rhubarb Filling
1 1/2 cups rhubarb, chopped in 1/2 pieces before measuring
7/8 cup sugar
1 egg
2 Tbs flour

Heat oven to 375. Scald rhubarb if desired (see note above). Mix sugar, flour, and egg into rhubarb. Pile high in the middle of the prepared crust, and cover with a top layer of pastry, latticed pastry, or crumbles (see note above). Bake for about 50 minutes.